By Nancy San Martin, Peter Wallsten and Alfonso Chard | Miami Herald
A growing controversy about the fate of 19 Cuban migrants aboard a Coast Guard cutter has prompted a debate within the Bush administration about its policy of repatriating most Cubans intercepted at sea, according to several administration officials.
It is not clear if the debate will yield a shift in policy, but some administration officials want an end to recurring dilemmas on what to do with Cuban migrants trying to reach the United States.
A White House spokesman said the Bush administration was not changing its migration policy. ‘‘Our policy is one of a safe, orderly and legal migration,’’ said Scott McClellan. “We expect that policy to be implemented and carried out in a consistent way.’’
The debate is the first serious hint of a split within the administration about the controversial Cuban repatriation policy in effect since 1995, when former President Clinton and the Cuban government agreed to new migration accords.
Under the agreement, Cubans stopped at sea are returned to Cuba unless they convince U.S. immigration officers that they have a ‘‘credible fear’’ of persecution if repatriated.
Typically, Cuban migrants are interviewed aboard Coast Guard ships by officers familiar with U.S. asylum procedures.
Cubans with a believable fear of persecution are taken to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, where their claims are investigated further.
Before the 1995 agreements, Cuban migrants were rescued at sea and brought to the United States.
Cuban migrants who elude the Coast Guard and reach shore now generally get to stay. The most recent group, numbering 53, landed Thursday near the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo. They were released from federal detention on Friday, said Barbara González, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami.
The debate over the repatriation policy unfolded in Washington as asylum officers continued to interview some of the 19 Cubans held on a Coast Guard cutter after being stopped Monday 44 miles north of Cuba. At least 13 of the Cubans claimed they were members of Cuban dissident groups.
A senior administration official said he believed some of the 19 Cubans would be taken to Guantánamo and others would likely be returned to Cuba.
But some migrants who were initially going to be repatriated were being reinterviewed to make sure nothing was overlooked, according to administration officials.
High level administration members, including national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and chief of staff Andrew Card were involved in discussions about the 19 Cubans, according to officials.
‘‘Based on new information . . . further scrutiny and additional interviews are ongoing,’’ said Steve Vermillion, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, a Florida Republican.
It was not clear what the ‘‘new information’’ was, but a senior Homeland Security official emphasized that the new round of interviews did not constitute a change in U.S. policy.
The heightened attention to the migrants appears to stem from the U.S. government’s decision to repatriate 12 suspected Cuban boat hijackers last month. They were returned after the Cuban government assured that the migrants would receive prison sentences no longer than 10 years.
The repatriation elicited criticism from Cuban exile groups, as well as from Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother.